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Way back when, regular sets were released, and the playerbase of "EDH" (Elder Dragon Highlander, the format's old name) incorporated new cards as they saw fit. It was very different then and the rules, and cards, have changed considerably.
And now, a new Commander set is coming... Commander Masters! It was inevitable. This announcement got me thinking: is Commander "better" now, or how it used to be? Here's my take.
The Format Was Always About Being Accessible and Balanced
That was part of the reason that the banned list included the power nine from day one(well, minus Timetwister). However, the original dual lands and other expensive cards were all allowed. Why? Because part of the identity of the format is the inclusion of rare, old, and, powerful cards that not everyone owns.
Does Commander need to ban dual lands and cards like them? No. But Conquest format does. This is the crux of the matter. If you're playing Commander as was intended, there's no issue. You are supposed to rein in what you are playing to match your local table. Of course, if you're playing with three other competitive players and you all want to play cEDH, then by all means, battle! That is the key: maintaining a relative balance of power at a table. If you, the player, cannot figure out how to balance your own deck, you might to find need a different format or a different play venue.
So far, so good, right? Mostly. The format exploded in popularity, and regular Magic featured cards that seemed perfect for a casual format but useless otherwise. Now, there have always been multiplayer-friendly cards, but Wizards began taking it to another level as they printed Commander sets. Eventually they even made a Black Lotus for Commander.
Is This What a Balanced Card Looks Like?
Not only has Wizards increased the power level of Commander to absurd levels, they have decreased the variety of cards that make their way into decks. When they are printing more new cards than ever before, how could this be?
Simple. Rapid power creep makes dozens of cards obsolete every month as new set after new set drops. With more product offerings than ever, there's vastly more to choose from. This means you are excluding more cards than ever. Which cards get included? Typically, the best ones.
Twelve years ago, we had access to Lion's Eye Diamond, which is absolutely played in cEDH decks but doesn't work in every deck. Now we have Jeweled Lotus, which is a competitive card, but with the expectation that many casual decks will run it. Unlike LED, Lotus fits into far more decks, and is a virtual auto-include in Commander, just like Sol Ring.
Making decks less distinct is the opposite of what Commander is about, yet that is what has continued to happen. Instead of making more situational cards and archetypes, Wizards has continued to reprint "staple" cards and make new cards that are almost always strictly more powerful versions of existing cards. It's alright to do this once in a while, but it's happening every single set.
The Evolution of a Magic Card
Behold the progression of Lay of the Land, a card originally printed in 2001. Can you see the power creep over 20 years? We've gone from a simple spell, to the same spell with a situational upside, to a pseudo-"Charm" or modal spell.
That's not a bad thing. However, it does mean that most of these versions of Lay of the Land are completely obsolete compared to the two that were printed in the, you guessed it, latest two sets. This is the troubling trend that is not subsiding.
The Tuck Rule and Other Commander Oddities
A long time ago at a Commander table somewhat far away, Commanders that left the battlefield didn't necessarily go back to the command zone. With certain cards, you could put Commanders into other zones like the library. The story goes that this made people feel bad and that is why the rules needed to change.
So rather than allow specific cards, lots of white cards by the way, to have a very specific identity... we instead changed the rules? The argument goes that Commander is, of course, a format about having access to your Commander; otherwise, what is the point?
Alright, fine, for the sake of argument, I agree. Let's see where this goes. This created CR 903.9, or the "replacement rule:" if your Commander left a game zone, you could instead, as a replacement effect, put your Commander back into the Command zone. This made sense to every player I have ever asked. Still, the rule was changed for one key reason.
As Good as Dead
It turns out that many Commanders had triggered abilities, for example, on death. But those abilities would not trigger if they died and you sent them to the Command zone as a replacement effect... thus, the rules "needed" to be changed once again. Now, we have CR 903.9A and B and C (a brief write-up in case you wanted to know more). It's no longer merely a replacement effect, but a replacement effect as a state-based action. Why is this important? Well, now you get triggers when they hit the grave. But as a side effect, it makes a handful of cards a bit more powerful than they "should" be.
Cards like Necromantic Selection can kill a commander, steal it, and you don't get to use the replacement effect until the game checks state-based actions, so by the time you have the option to put your commander into the Command zone, it's too late; they have stolen it. To me, this feels bad. And anyway, isn't the point of Commander to have access to your commander? Where have I heard these complaints before?
But far worse than simply a "feels bad" interaction, it's also the change from a rule that is easy to explain and ultra-consistent to a modification of that rule that is in fact three rules and that makes certain cards way better than they should be. This is not simple or elegant in terms of game play and rules knowledge in a supposedly casual-friendly format.
An Accessible Secret
Wizards saw that Chaos Warp, Oblation and Trade Secrets were popular, and reprinted these cards in new Commander decks. Now you have access to these cards, yay! Except once more people started playing with Trade Secrets, they found out it was busted, and it got banned.
Furthermore, the tuck cards then got de-powered through rule changes. As a player, it can be disheartening to finish a deck or find a strategy only to have it be "nerfed" by the game developers. This is an unfortunate situation that is happening in Magic more and more.
However, Trade Secrets is merely a symptom of the problem, not the cause. I for one am curious what will happen after Commander Masters starts distributing more copies of powerful cards at more Commander tables than ever. More than one person is going to be sorely disappointed after their shiny new card gets banned or slapped with a functional change. We'll have to wait and see on this point, but I am looking to the past to guide my expectations of the future.
Other Random Rules and Side Effects
Commander color identity has finally reached a relatively stable form. But did you know that if you generated mana that was not in your commander's color identity, it used to be colorless mana instead? Some cards were banned, but only as a commander. Then, Magic added the companion mechanic, which is Commander-legal (well, except for Lutri, the Spellchaser and, technically,Yorion, Sky Nomad is "illegal as a companion" but isn't banned).
My point: Commander is far more complicated than it ever has been, and for a casual format, that's somewhat disappointing. Nothing is stopping anyone from playing simpler decks, but even pre-constructed decks are being made with vastly more mechanics than ever. It's an ever-increasing challenge to choose between power level and complexity. Wizards is not making it easier.
Finally, free mulligans in Commander are meant to reduce non-games, but are being used to support greedier mana bases and more explosive openers, ironically creating non-games for those who do not do the same thing to keep up.
Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back
Wizards is the Two-Headed Giant of Foriys. A great set like Baldur's Gate with a new background mechanic, and initiative as a better dungeon mechanic, stand out. It potentially adds a lot of variety to Commander games and many new combinations for your commander and background. Unfortunately, the background mechanic seems a bit underplayed according to EDHREC. Baldur's Gate was not an expensive set, so budget is not the reason. Dungeons and Dragons very popular and there is significant overlap of the player base so it's not about setting. Most likely? Purely for power reasons.
If I want to make Homarid tribal, who is the only commander? Morophon, the Boundless. What about 20 other lesser-supported tribal types? Still Morophon. The problem is that after they print supporting tribal commanders, it will likely still be Morophon. Rather than making yet another reprint set, it would be nice for Wizards to add some spicier variety into the mix. They could have done that with Baldur's Gate by allowing more color combinations with backgrounds, but likely did not in favor of some idea of balance. (Keep in mind these are the designers who made Thassa's Oracle, Dockside Extortionist, and Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines; they can't balance a gyroscope)
The Inevitable Conclusion
Don't get me wrong: Commander is still a great format, and one I spend tons of time on. It's my very love for Commander that makes me want it to be better. Do I pine for the days of Commander with far less powerful decks? Of course. It was a lot easier to balance decks against one another and make sure power levels were at parity. Today, the divide between casual decks, decks with only a few cEDH level cards, and entire cEDH decks is growing smaller. With more cards than ever, creativity is in fact being stifled by ubiquity and power.
It would be nice for Wizards to grow the game horizontally with more unique choices rather than vertically with obviously stronger options. We'll never go back to the days of Wood Elemental, but it would be nice if more flavorful cards could exist outside of the cEDH vacuum.
What do you think? Was Commander better with the tuck rule? How about the old replacement effects for the Command zone? Has the game gotten a bit too complicated and cut throat for its own good? Or did these thoughts read as "old man yells at cloud?" Let me know in the comments.